The progress movement is a multi-disciplinary effort, covering such territory as the history and social science of innovation, the philosophy of progress, and metascience. All of these fields add valuable perspectives to the whole, but in this post, I want to highlight futurism as a critical element.
As a definition, I'll call futurism (or "futurology" or "futures studies," as Wikipedia seems to prefer) the systematic study of technological advancement for the purpose of understanding how people will live in the future. To do futurism right, you have to understand social science and history but also natural science, engineering, and business.
Why is futurism important for progress? Futurism can imbue the progress community with a more concrete vision of the future. That matters for at least three reasons.
First, a concrete vision can promote constructive actions that drive progress. To be sure, it is possible to be pro-progress without any specific vision of the future. Within (say) libertarianism, I think this combination of views is very common. For the past 50 years, politicians have used the existence of societal problems to justify the creation of new government programs. If you tend to oppose the unrelenting accretion of programs, as libertarians do, you may then want to expound a sort of Whig history that emphasizes the glory of the present compared to the benighted past. On this view, we just need to sit back, adopt free markets and the rule of law, and let progress continue. Problems go away, as if by magic. No new programs necessary. We can even invoke a bastardized version of Hayek, arguing that no one can possibly know what new economic possibilities the future holds.
A problem with such indefinite optimism, to borrow a term from Peter Thiel, is that it promotes passivity. The invisible hand only works because of people acting and choosing. If the invisible hand drives progress forward, as the Whigs believe, it is only because some people make plans and execute them, and together these people make society better.
If we want progress to happen faster, we need people to make good plans that will work to drive progress forward. In other words, we need a realistic vision of what future possibilities are, where the profit opportunities lie, and what are the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Second, a concrete vision can get normal people excited about progress. There are many of us who think about the world in highly abstract terms. We not only intellectualize, we are motivated by our intellectualizations. We get excited about the idea of progress and technological development as such.
A lot of normal people aren't like this. A statement like "future technological progress will reduce the burden of human disease" doesn't move the needle on their excitement. But if you have specifics, like "control over mRNA and related technologies could make virtually all forms of cancer easily treatable," that piques interest. Even more so if you can explain how exactly it would work and what the remaining technical obstacles are.
A credible and concrete vision of the future afforded by careful study can bring normal people to Team Progress. There are many more of them than there are of us, so if we want to achieve significant progress, we probably need to recruit some normies.
Third, a concrete vision can tell us where we are going wrong. One of the challenges we face as a movement is getting people to even agree that progress is slowing down. We can point to abstract statistics like total factor productivity, but people look at their phones and think we live in an age of wonders, completely ignoring all the other fields in which stagnation has ruled.
There is one area, however, in which stagnation is indisputable—high-speed travel. After all, the Concorde had its first flight in 1969 and entered service in 1976. It cruised at a brisk 1320 mph. Since it retired in 2003, it is impossible at any price to travel in a civil aircraft faster than 660 mph. Even Elon Musk's Gulfstream cruises at under 600 mph.
The point is not that we need to fix high-speed travel, although we certainly do. It's that it's only an accident of history that there is such a clear example of stagnation, one of which we can credibly convince the doubters, at least as far as it goes. In reality, stagnation is all around us if only we do the work to understand what futures are possible. For example, if we had a sane regulatory environment, nuclear power might cost 2¢/kWh as opposed to 3–4 times that much. But to become convinced of that requires interdisciplinary work (understanding physics, engineering, the energy business) to understand the realm of the possible—essentially, futurism.
The progress movement can't be mere futurism. We need the historians and social scientists and philosophers and the metascientists. But I think if we are to succeed as a movement, we must be concrete about what we want to achieve. And for that, we need to think rigorously about the future.